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Archive for the ‘Hunting (General)’ Category

For newer friends to WellPreserved, the mention of hunting may be disarming.  To learn more about why I’ve decided to hunt (and the struggles I have with it), this post is a proper introduction.  For those looking to see what the hunt is actually like (without graphic pictures), you can read my (very long) diaries for 2011 – 2009 and 2010 are bundled here; just read from the bottom up. If you plan to read about the 2011 hunt, you may not want to read the following as it contains spoilers from that series.

It’s difficult to imagine that our Moose Hunt was 3 months ago.  It’s even more difficult to imagine that our cabin will be empty and abandoned for another 3 months and that preparations for 2012 will loosely start just that soon.  The hunting season has a prolonged build-up before it suddenly arrives and then disappears almost as quick as it started (many don’t realize that rifle season for moose is 6 days long in much of Ontario).

There are many fond memories of this years hunt, as well as some great lessons.  I’m very excited at some of the improvements we’ve made – specifically in marking some of the watches so that our lines are set optimally as well as some of the new maps we were able to produce merging data from our GPS and Google Maps.

On the flip side of things, the lack of success in this years hunt has significantly changed our diet.  Over the last 3 years we’ve significantly changed our habits around meat; the biggest changes have come from the amount we eat and where we buy it. 

Our overall consumption of meat has decreased tremendously over the last 5 years.  Back then I remember buying steaks as big as our head (almost) and joyfully eating the entire thing.  When my parents would share that they used to do the same and that they just couldn’t consume that amount of meat anymore, I couldn’t imagine otherwise (even though I spent more than 5 years of my life where I ate no red meat, pork or game and only rare doses of fish and chicken).  It wasn’t that I was dependant on meat, it’s just that I enjoyed it when we had it.

The biggest change has come from how we buy meat;  I can’t remember the last time we bought it at a grocery store.  Almost 100% of the red meat, fish and chicken that enters our house is direct from farmer or traceable through a butcher to a farmer. 

The only exception is the odd ‘takeout’ meal or meal with friends at a restaurant (and even then we’re fortunate to enjoy some of Toronto’s expanding number of restaurants which focus on local and sustainable food).  And, even then, the choices of what I will order out is diminishing –   I’m not entirely comfortable with all of the choices I make when eating out but I have made significant eliminations on what I simply won’t order and make different decisions than I did even a year ago.

Our meat now primarily comes from small butchers and in far less quantity.  The quantity has decreased only in small part due to price – much of the change comes from a fridge full of food from our CSA ($30 a week) and we struggle to go through what we get with it.

There’s also a significant decrease due to the lack of moose in our freezer.  The truth is that in previous years this would not have hurt nearly as much as it does this year.  Game is becoming a more essential source of meat in our diet and the lack of it means a significant decrease in what we’ll consume this year.  Hunting, on a good year, supplies 30-45 pounds of meat to our family of two which is more than enough for us to easily supplement our diet with.

It’s not all darkness though.  We’re both very happy to eat vegetarian meals and my Father was fortunate during the deer hunt and I know we have a supply of deer waiting in his deep freeze.  It also means that we’re finding new ways to eat vegetables and that things that used to sit on the side of the plate now take the spotlight.  My soup making skills are increasing though my desire to eat something else is on the rise.

I think of the hunting season more than you would believe.  I wonder what I need to learn.  I think about the equipment I used and how it suffered in the rain.  I think about how cold and miserable it was and that I let the weather drive me indoors before dark and know I need a bigger resolve to stick it out if I’m going to continue to eat meat and want to make this part of my diet.

I will be a better hunter next year.  My family depends on that.

More than anything, I’m left with a bigger resolution than ever – that hunting is no longer a ‘hobby’ of 20 years but an essential part of my diet.  It’s a skill that I have to learn more about and I have to get better at.  I’ve always learned that the lack of success wouldn’t threaten my survival but I’m learning that it will threaten my ability to follow my ethics.

This is a journey for us – not an end destination.  I’m not suggesting you should make the same suggestions as us.  I see our (Dana and mine) relationship to food is drastically changing and am often surprised at just how quickly that’s happening.  We don’t have ‘the answers’ but are having fun finding ‘our answers.’ 

These posts help me understand just how much we’re changing – both in the present but also looking back at them in the future to see where we were at a certain time.  The 35 year-old Joel would have been shocked to know what the values the 38-year-old held.  I’m hoping the 41-year-old me will do the same for the 38-year-old that is typing today.

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This is post 5 of 6 in a series sharing random stories and thoughts from my years in the woods.  They won’t tie directly together but I’m hopeful that they will share a common feeling to give an overall picture of some of the rarely discussed elements around hunting that may give a bigger picture of something I’ve never lived without.

Hunting has a vocabulary of its own, here’s a quick start of some of the words we use in the woods:

  • Dogger (also called a puncher).  This person ‘dogs’ or ‘punches’ the bush.  They walk towards the others with the wind at their back to try to encourage any animals in the woods to go closer to the watchers.
  • Watcher.  A person who sits as still and quiet as possible.
  • Line.  “The line” is where all the watches are sitting – roughly in a line, sometimes slightly curved and called a horseshoe (but never facing each other for obvious reasons).
  • Driving – what one does when they are dogging.  If I’m driving the line, I’m a dogger walking towards the watches.
  • A watch (also a stand).  The place a watcher sits.
  • Run.  A run is a single hunt – we’ll do 4-6 runs per day.
  • Game trail.  Animals will sometimes use a specific path frequently enough to turn it into a trail – often used around water and food.
  • Bed.  An area of grass or brush that has been flattened for sleep by an animal.
  • Rub.  Primarily relates to male deer who rub their antlers against a tree leaving their scent behind – and a challenge to others in the area.
  • Call.  Something a  hunter does to mimic an animal sound and ‘call’ them in.

It’s not exactly the Webster’s version – but it’s a start of some of the hunting-specific terminology you may hear in the woods.

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This is post 6 of 6 in a series sharing random stories and thoughts from my years in the woods.  They won’t tie directly together but I’m hopeful that they will share a common feeling to give an overall picture of some of the rarely discussed elements around hunting that may give a bigger picture of something I’ve never lived without.

When we are successful in our hunt, we have to prepare the meat for the butcher.  The animal is ‘cleaned’ in the field before returning to camp (generally still in-tact and will its fur on) and it’ hung in our ‘hanging shed.’  The ‘Shed’ is a massive structure – it’s roof begins 12 or 14 feet off the ground and a steel beam up the center of it has several block-and-tackles (pulleys) attached which make for easy work for raising an animal which can weigh 600-800 pounds at this point.  The shed has an earthen floor and no walls – this allows for air to circulate and for the ageing process to begin.

The cleaning process (often called ‘field dressing’) results in a pile of innards on the ground.  Most of those remains are consumed by wolves in the first 24-36 hours of them being left.

We often have discussions on the merits of which way to hang it – head up or down?  There have been plenty of conclusions drawn and, at the end of the day, I’m not sure we’ll ever fully set in to full agreement on which way to hang it.

The fur is often removed at this point (we used to wait until the end of the week but experience has shown this helps it dry and that it’s far easier to take it off as close to the harvest as possible).  The animal may remain whole at this point or is cut into quarters and hung to dry further.

Ideally we’d like to hang the moose as long as possible (this results in better-flavour and texture) and I wish we could hang it well beyond the 4 or 5 days it often gets. 

So far, I’m hoping the process sounds pretty straightforward.  And it is – until the weather plays its havoc.  If the weather gets too warm, meat can begin to rot – not an acceptable outcome for any of us.  So the moment an animal is harvested, the weather forecast is monitored like a hawk by the guys in camp in the event we have to make a quick move and wrap the animals in plastic and bring them to a butcher (we always do so with the meat well covered so that those who aren’t interested don’t have to face it).

The dynamic goes back and forth all week until we determine there is no other option and bring the animal to a specialty butcher who specializes in wild meat during the hunt (they are not allowed to process beef and moose at the same time and have to finish moose season before returning to cow.

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This is post 4 of 6 in a series sharing random stories and thoughts from my years in the woods.  They won’t tie directly together but I’m hopeful that they will share a common feeling to give an overall picture of some of the rarely discussed elements around hunting that may give a bigger picture of something I’ve never lived without.

“Turn Left Here.  Recalculating.”

Many people have experienced the monosyllabic instructions of that universally calm voice of a GPS in a car.  It amazes me to think that a talking GPS was something that would have seemed impossibly far in the future only 15 years ago – and today it’s something that’s almost taken for granted. 

We’ve been using GPS’s for 15 or so years in the woods.  When we first started using them, the military had a mandatory control that forced them to be inaccurate by up to 30 meters.  This modification was related to security.

The technology we use in the forest is similar to car units (it tells you exactly where you are) but there are a few differences:

  • Our devices don’t speak
  • The amount of roads are limited.
  • Some large geographic points (i.e. bodies of water) appear on them.
  • There are no pre-made paths/ routes/ directions.
  • They allow us to save and modify our maps – the most frequent things I add are waypoints and tracks.

A waypoint is an essential concept of a GPS – it’s a digital breadcrumb that you can place on your map.  This allows you to set a ‘target’ for where you are walking and forms the basis of your navigation.  I use waypoints for other reasons too – marking where people sit, showing people where to go and for analyzing how close or far apart our different watches are.

Tracks allow me to save the path of wherever I walked; it’s like a digital marker on a map which traces my every movement.  I turn them on before walking down a 100-year old logging road and creating a view of it on my map.

The best thing about the GPS is that it enables us to become lost in the woods.  When I started hunting we had a compass and a bearing to follow.  You walked in a very straight line (unless you were a veteran who could take as many liberties as your experience allowed) until you found the place you were going.  The GPS allows for all sorts of wandering as it constantly reforecasts (‘recalculating’) which direction you need to go to find your waypoint.

The technology is improving all of the time – I now transfer my tracks and waypoints to a computer where I can view the data I captured with my handheld unit and analyze it further.  It helps us understand our forest better – and helps ensure a safe trip without anyone getting lost.

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This is post 3 of 6 in a series sharing random stories and thoughts from my years in the woods.  They won’t tie directly together but I’m hopeful that they will share a common feeling to give an overall picture of some of the rarely discussed elements around hunting that may give a bigger picture of something I’ve never lived without.

Hunting has taught me a lot about sound.  It has taught me that a squirrel running through leaves can sound like a freight train and that a moose trudging in the same forest can do so in stealth.  It is truly amazing at just how quiet moose and deer can be – even when running at a full gallop.

I have also learned that science can be the loudest noise that you’ve ever heard.  If you’ve every sat under the stars and stared at the sky, you’ll know that each minute allows you eyes to adjust and more and more stars begin to appear within the darkness.  It turns out that your ears can reproduce such an effect – the longer you sit in silence, the louder nothing gets.

You may need to read that again – the longer you sit in silence, the louder nothing gets.

There is a difference between nothing (i.e. pure silence) and the white noise that occurs as you concentrate on sounds and can hear more and more subtle noises (like the squirrel above) become louder.  I’m describing that the silence itself actually gets loud – almost loud enough to feel.  This is part of what makes returning from the hunt so difficult – the screech of a streetcar stopping will be enough to incite an immediate ‘need’ to get off the street and into somewhere quiet.

I’ve also learned a bit about the mystery of how sound travels.  It’s amazing to note that if you are sitting in the ‘perfect’ position and someone fires a rifle 150 yards away from you that it will leave your ears ringing a little while you may not even hear the next shot from the same place (this is rare from such a close distance but has happened at our camp).  150 yards in the woods is a long distance – to cross such a distance, sound has to rise and fall with the terrain, dodge trees and leaves and cut through the darkness of the forest to find you.

We do carry radios to communicate with each other (although try to remain off air as much as possible to keep our presence ‘sonically hidden’).  Depending on the depths of the forest we are exploring, the radios have various levels of success – they work sometimes and fail others.

The most reliable way of sending a message that will be heard is by a whistle.  We prefer to use pealess whistles (such as the Fox 40) which works in all weather conditions and are fantastically reliable).  We determine specific numbers of whistle blasts to indicate different things (always reserving 3 blasts for ‘HELP’ as 3 is a universal call for help).  When you hear your neighbor blow his whistle, it is the expectation that you will repeat the signal until you hear the person on the other side of you repeat the signal down the line.

It always makes me smile that our most dependable form of communication in the woods is also one of the oldest.

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This is post 2 of 6 in a series sharing random stories and thoughts from my years in the woods.  They won’t tie directly together but I’m hopeful that they will share a common feeling to give an overall picture of some of the rarely discussed elements around hunting that may give a bigger picture of something I’ve never lived without.

I have eaten wild meat/game my entire life (other than the 5-year period when I ate no red meat or pork and very little other animal protein).  I actually don’t remember not eating it.  I’m not an authority on game but I’ve certainly consumed plenty of it and learned lots about its flavour, preparing it and sharing it.

It is because of this experience that I have a simple pet peeve: I barely believe that there is any such thing as ‘gamey’ meat.

The question, “Is it gamey?” comes up frequently with many people when they hear that I eat moose or deer.  It’s an answer I am most patient with but I believe it is a conditioned question.  For example, I like to ask what ‘gamey’ means to the other person (taking care not to sound sarcastic or mean).  Most people who I ask, aren’t sure.  You see, unless you’ve had game, how would you know what gamey tastes like?  Yet it’s a question that many are curious about.

But that’s really just splitting hairs and nuances.  The question isn’t why I don’t believe in the existence of ‘gamey.’  I just think that a lot of people cook wild meat incorrectly.  Consider:

  • Almost all wild game is grass-fed (this is 100% of the animals we harvest).  Exceptions are made in farming country where animals may graze in corn and wheat fields (or other such grain) but we are in the heart of forest wetlands.  Grass-fed beef has a distinct flavour from commercially raised animals which tends to be more pronounced (and many consider to be more interesting).
  • Small agriculture farming produces incredibly different flavours of beef.  We introduced our friend Carrie Oliver back in 2010 – Carrie actually does beef tastings to demonstrate the dramatic differences between different small farms (and breeds).  Yet almost all of our large-farmed commercial agriculture produces mono-tasting beef.  While moose can be a drastic contrast from big-agriculture, the differences between moose and a small-farmed cow can be as diverse as the taste between two small-farmed cows from different farms.
  • Wild game is incredibly lean.  Super lean.  Extra skinny.  This also contributes to a different flavour profile.
  • People overcook game.  I think there’s a fear of undercooked it because it’s wild (bear should be cooked well-through while other game, such as moose, does not have to be cooked all the way through).  Overcook a moose steak and it will be super dry and taste like used shoe leather (the lack of fat will also contribute to this undesirable texture and the taste will be less than desirable).

So many people eat overly cooked lean meat and compare it to mass-agriculture fatty beef raised on corn or other feeds and draw the conclusion that the flavours they are tasting are ‘gamey.’  While there may be an element of such a flavour, sampling different kinds of beef (which have been fed differently) will start to unveil that a lot of the flavours you are experiences have as much to do with diet and the way the animal has been raised than simply being tinged so mysteriously.

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This is post 1 of 6 in a series sharing random stories and thoughts from my years in the woods.  They won’t tie directly together but I’m hopeful that they will share a common feeling to give an overall picture of some of the rarely discussed elements around hunting that may give a bigger picture of something I’ve never lived without.

I have been truly lost (defined by me as knowing neither where you or nor where you need to go) in the woods 4 or 5 times in my life.  During each of these experiences I was well off-trail and in the middle of a forest or swamp.  I have been fortunate to have been lost for no more than 4 or 5 hours at a time and have never had to spend a night in the woods because of it.  Technology is making these experiences less common but they certainly still can happen.

There are a two forms of being lost that I’ve experienced:

  • Becoming disoriented and having no navigational aid (i.e. GPS, compass, map) at all.  While this is painful, there are a few things you can use to orient yourself (i.e. where the sun is in the sky depending on the time of day, checking the angle of shadows or seeing what side the moss is growing on a tree).  In my worst such experience I was canoeing (as a junior Ranger) and was mid-portage when I lost consciousness.  When I came to, I panicked (still mostly ‘out of it’) and ran directly into the woods for several hundred years leaving my glasses and equipment behind.  The portage was a 3-day trip from pavement and finding my way back to the path was scary.
  • Being disoriented with tools – i.e. knowing where you are, where you have to go but having no way to get there.  A few years ago I was less than 300 meters from the road that would take me home – but I appeared to be surrounded by water on all sides (I had found a narrow land bridged onto an island, hadn’t realized it and couldn’t find my way back).  The lake had a thin layer of ice and the weather was extremely cold.  I could hear my friends on the road – I just had no way to get there.

When getting lost, it’s essential that you:

  • Remain calm.
  • Consider not moving.  If you’re hopelessly lost, you shouldn’t keep walking and hoping to ‘get lucky’, it’s best to stay still and let people find you.  The further you move away, the less of a chance that you’ll be found.  Only move if you know you can get back or have contact with your party.
  • Although this is a step that can’t be done once in the forest, be prepared – bring matches, snacks, a pocket knife and small first-aid supplies in case of emergency.

The list above is only partial – but is something we think about when preparing for the hunt.  A lot of the forest we walk through gets seen by human eyes 10 times (or considerably less) per year.

The worst feeling in the world (as it relates to becoming lost) comes well after you’ve been lost for a while.  It’s common to play mind games and push yourself just to walk another 50 feet to escape your trap (note the ‘staying put’ advice above).  You keep convincing yourself that you are getting ever-closer to your freedom only to suddenly have a sinking realization that after an hour or two of walking you have ended up right back where you where when you started.  It’s an absolute feeling of hopelessness and desperation.

Weapons against getting lost include learning how to use a GPS, compass, topographical map and knowing as much as you can about the land around you – something that is passed down through the many generations at our cabin.

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